Henrik Syse suggests a new approach to politics that brings human dignity to the fore, more focus on the challenges that face all humankind, and increased efforts to find common ground and unite through friendly dialogue.
These lines are being written at a time of crisis, of widespread self-criticism, and of not insignificant handwringing. US troops have just left Afghanistan, and the country’s future under the new Taliban rule is uncertain and seems potentially chaotic.
Alongside this turn of events and, partly as a result of it, we see wide-ranging debates about the future of democracy and rule of law, and signs of real competition between divergent systems of politics, with differing visions of the individual and the individual’s relationship to the collective, whether that be a religious tradition, an ideology, a party, or a nation.
Such a world could be a world of ever-increasing conflict and oppression, further fuelled by the effects of climate change and competition over resources and territory.
So, what can politicians do, if they wish to avoid such a development and build peaceful relations? Are there ways out?
The question is hard, if not impossible to answer in the abstract. But three inroads may give us some idea of what to do, and I base these on my own research within moral and political philosophy, as well as my background as a former member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize.
Firstly, we should return to the lessons we can learn from the world’s reaction to the Second World War and its many, unspeakable horrors. Even if marred by the post-war ideological split between East and West, between Communism and Democracy, the process towards the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948—based on a shared idea of inherent human dignity—still offers glimmers of hope. Based on what the political philosopher John Rawls would later call an ‘overlapping consensus’, the declaration in effect insists that the affirmation of human dignity and basic human rights can come from different belief systems and ideologies. It is not itself an ideology, but an expression of a common humanity, which is threatened by the horrors of war and brutality.
Human beings confined to lives of oppression, pain, and suffering cannot realise their inherent dignity, yet, it is that inherent dignity which expresses our true human nature. Hence, politicians must be more vocal in talking about—and challenging each other on—the question of whether their policies, ideas, and institutions foster or denigrate basic human dignity and freedom, which must also include the required environmental sustainability that can ensure the vitality and health of our societies. This is in many ways the core political and moral question, across ideologies and nations: Do we preserve and foster lives of true dignity, or not?
The hopes of the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was that the shared values of humankind expressed through the ideas of inherent dignity and human rights could transcend politics and ideology. We must revisit that vision.
Secondly, we must turn to the common challenges of humankind. Destructive climate change, artificial intelligence without meaningful human control, brutal wars, or weapons of mass destruction, all represent deeply dangerous trends that threaten humanity as a whole. Therefore, we need common measures, deep-seated cooperation, and constant dialogue. We must demand that politicians do not hide behind nation, party, or ideology in a way that blocks real action on challenges of a global nature. This does not necessarily make our differences any smaller, but it makes our shared, common problems and opportunities so much clearer.
And thirdly, we need politicians who can search, through dialogue and true goodwill, for the common ground to be found between and across cultures, nations, groups, and ideologies. Intercultural and interreligious dialogues happen all the time, in both academic and religious settings, and they are often powerful and useful. But politicians are rarely involved in any depth. Some fear they may lose their prestige and power if they talk to ‘the enemy’. Others will feel they lack the time or know-how to engage. Maybe the problem is that the rooms where politicians meet are routinely associated only with the concrete agendas of politics. Places for friendship, for true listening, and for real meetings of minds and collaboration are much rarer. The fact is that they are needed now more than ever. These are not rooms where conflicts are forgotten or reality is papered over, but rather rooms that remind us that there is more to the ‘life of the polis’—the life of the community—as the ancient Greeks would say, than power, victory, ideology, and prestige.
Aren’t these all utterly unrealistic ideals, impossible to realise in a world where politics is oftentimes purely populist, driven by the agendas of the moment, or alternatively hopelessly corrupt and or party- and power-centered? Then again, it takes individuals to change the dynamics of politics, and maybe the younger generations across the globe are realising that our common problems in our modern globalised world simply demand cooperation, understanding, broad participation, goodwill, and even friendship. I believe there is a serious gap in much research on international politics right here: on leaders, politicians, and activists becoming and talking to each other as friends.
On Christmas Eve in 1968, the astronauts of spacecraft Apollo 8 took what many have named the most important and influential nature photograph ever: Earthrise. As the first humans ever to leave Earth’s gravity, they also became the first humans to see with their own eyes the Earth rise over the horizon of another heavenly body. At the end of that truly dramatic year, 1968, they reminded us on Earth that we have received this vulnerable planet as our common gift.
In our world of pandemics, brutality, terror, war, political oppression and ruthless competition, but also our world of beauty, ideas, generosity, and spirit, we need politicians who can stand united and, like those astronauts, remind us what is at stake. This is not about agreeing about everything or pretending that there are no conflicts. It is about being true politicians who can address the challenges of the present and the future.